No. Like most important, ominous, dangerous things—like life, like plagues, like language, like the earliest elaborations of any idea of sin—the map begins invisibly and, for sufficiently long enough to transform the world that it surveys, invisible it stays. The map’s origins, therefore, are unimportant and nothing new, strategically. Sure, if you prefer—shrouded in mystery. This is just how metamorphoses begin, at least the ones that continue, make waves, win. No, and again, there’s nothing initially novel about the ploy of the map, in scope or approach, except that its particular topos appears without a prequel. Other than that, there’s really nothing much more you need to know. Let’s go.
Let’s start with a road. Little kids and would-be world-builders emphasize geographic features, castles, and cities in their imagined maps. They draw lots of diamond-peaked mountains and tiny coniferous trees. Early atlases, at the beginning of the acquisitive European explosion across all the oceans, understandably emphasized bodies of water and the unknown monsters in them. But the core metabolism of this map lives on roads. Roads eat the world.
(Later we’ll get to islands, which have a way of vanishing from maps and from existence. Later. For now, we hit the road.)
It’s in you, actually. Try it. Take a step and announce, out loud or in your head. You just began a hungry map. The compass rose is you. The first road is where you go. The first step you remember breaks a chunk off the edge of the actual world, a morsel that makes the invisible map hungrier. Your body doesn’t know it yet. Your immune system, usually so far ahead of you, naps. It will catch the fever later. For these early moments, the only wanderer is you.
Skeptical? Wait a moment. Maybe take another step or two. Say so. Turn around slowly. Turn in your chair if chairs suit you. There. Already. A tiny, dusty scrap of a blue-lined path, surveyor’s chalk snapped on the floor, on the grounds of the floating world, one thimble-small corner now pinned down—that’s you. The map. This map. Gnawing at one edge of everything. What you did. What you’ve done. What you do. No one can see it yet, this bit of track, but it’s you.
What may not have occurred to you yet is that although the map is you, is yours, others are working on theirs, too. The floating world sometimes can be seen to glow like a great, gossamer sail. The steps of each cartographer pin figments down. We’ll make a vast tent of this billowing gown. Eventually, we‘ll make it a Gulliver. Go a little further. Check your progress—every rotation, every step, every measure. More pin points, more line.
The road takes you straight into the woods, unfortunately, uncharted of course. Don’t worry. You, the map, will devour the woods, make it a twig-and-paper nest of your growing roads. Don’t despair if the early going is slow. You’re still invisible, you know.
Have you ever noticed that, as many of the better storytellers have said (and as long as we’re making slow progress, we might as well converse), even though precocious children themselves make terrible maps, the finest fake cartography gets served as endpapers to stories aimed first at kids? Never trust a map made for the juvenile mind. It might as well have its own genome. It might as well be a seed. Check your own thoughts as you walk, as your own lines trail from your slowly growing outline. Remember any childhood worlds yourself? They’re huge now, folded up like cloaks and photographers’ hoods inside you, aren’t they? Huge as this forest, and dark. No adult child ever completely escapes from those woods grown out of earlier adults’ transplanted maps. Nevertheless, you can keep on hacking your way through. That’s good. That’s the grown up thing to do. Be your own map, this map. Never lose yourself in the woods.
Also, perhaps don’t forget that you’re the map, microbial, and you’re making yourself as you eat up your earth. You’re not the journey. The hero’s journey is for someone else. (Ever notice how those heroes are always finding maps or being given maps? You’re not some hero’s road map, darling. You’re better and scarier than that.) You don’t so much journey as unfurl. You might even start to appear to someone other than yourself, but don’t rush. These narrow lines you mark don’t need attention to spider out. You are where you were, insofar as you noted so. It’s nobody else’s business yet what you are or how you grow. Stay in the cracks between roots as you do, dragging your newly blazed groove in the world.
And there you are, your first stream to ford, your first clearing beyond it, and is that a witch’s or woodcutter’s hut abandoned beyond the meadow? Good thing you’re a hungry little chart and not an innocent trail of breadcrumbs. You are all the steps you counted out and drew down as lines this far, and so you are now here. Pause a spell by the wayside before you decide your next direction. You draw the road. Does the road turn aside?